What does Gov. Ron DeSantis think about racism and criminal justice in America? It’s a puzzle.

Race and criminal justice are not issues the Republican has spoken of often during his time in elected office.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis waits for the start of a NASCAR Cup Series auto race Sunday, June 14, 2020, in Homestead.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis waits for the start of a NASCAR Cup Series auto race Sunday, June 14, 2020, in Homestead. [ WILFREDO LEE | AP ]
Published June 16, 2020|Updated June 16, 2020

The killing of George Floyd, a black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer, has moved state leaders across the nation to address police brutality and systematic racism.

Iowa’s Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a bipartisan police reform bill. Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo banned choke holds during arrests. Gov. Greg Abbott, a Texas Republican, promised Floyd’s family his state would do something when lawmakers reconvene in January.

“George Floyd is going to change the arc of the future of the United States,” Abbott said.

There’s been no such reckoning in Florida, where the state’s most powerful leader has said little publicly about the protests.

Gov. Ron DeSantis hasn’t acknowledged the substance of calls for change from demonstrators marching from little Navarre in the western Panhandle to Homestead at the edge of the peninsula.

In his lone public remarks on Floyd’s death during a June 3 news conference in Orlando, he opened by reciting the arrests law enforcement had made during the initial weekend of protests, making special mention of a man in Tampa arrested for trying to sell Molotov cocktails and another for carrying a backpack filled with “mortars”.

“Florida won’t tolerate rioting, looting or violence,” DeSantis said, before thanking law enforcement and the peaceful protesters, including ones who he said “helped stymie attempts of some protesters seeking to engage in violent activity.”

At the same news conference, DeSantis condemned the four Minneapolis police officers that arrested Floyd, calling their actions “totally intolerable." He did so after he was asked about it by a reporter. He didn’t address the underlying frustrations with policing and Florida’s criminal justice system.

“They’re uncomfortable conversations but we have to have them now,” said Rep. Fentrice Driskell, a Democrat who represents some minority communities near the University of South Florida. "The governor’s silence on this is really not showing the leadership we need on this issue.”

Like so many other topics, DeSantis’ views on race and criminal justice remain elusive.

He has aligned himself politically with tough-on-crime sheriffs, but he hired Mark Inch, a reform-minded bureaucrat, to run the state prison system. He has flirted with an overhaul of the state’s clemency process, but he is waging a lengthy legal battle to keep thousands of ex-felons from voting. He pardoned the Groveland Four — the black men wrongly accused of raping a white woman in 1949 who were tortured, killed or imprisoned — but has been largely silent on the most recent cases of police brutality that’s inspiring today’s protests.

Criminal justice advocates say they hope the recent sea change of public support for Black Lives Matter and reform issues will move DeSantis like it has other Republican governors. They note that DeSantis as a congressman supported an early version of the First Step Act, a bill that reduced prison sentences for some non-violent offenses. But it’s not exactly an issue he has championed either.

“It’s all tea-leave reading,” said Greg Newburn, the director of state policy for Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “We don’t have a lot to go on.”

DeSantis’ office declined multiple requests to make the governor available for an on-the-record conversation about the unprecedented civil unrest taking place in Florida. A spokeswoman wouldn’t say if DeSantis thought anything should be done to address policing and racism in the aftermath of Floyd’s death.

In response to Floyd’s death, protesters have pushed for an array of changes to Florida’s laws, like ending cash bail and mandatory reporting of police brutality. They have also advocated for shifting public resources that fund law enforcement agencies toward social programs, sometimes using the phrase, “defund the police.”

At a fundraiser during the 2018 campaign for governor, DeSantis called the idea “radical" after it was made a central tenant of the mission of the Dream Defenders, an organization of young activists who mobilized after black teenager Trayvon Martin was killed in Sanford.

“When you do that, you’re basically begging for a crime spree," DeSantis said, according to the Florida Times-Union.

DeSantis’ opponent, Democrat Andrew Gillum had signed the Dream Defenders pledge vowing to divest from “prisons, detention centers, guns and police and invest in the basic safety of its people, especially its children." DeSantis made the pledge a focal point of the race against Gillum and called the Dream Defenders’ mission “deplorable across-the-board."

“You want to talk about division?" DeSantis said. “It doesn’t get more divisive than the Dream Defenders.”

Many activists involved in Dream Defenders were in high school and college. Some recall now how taken back they were by the onslaught of hate mail they received after DeSantis’ comments made it to the conservative website Breitbart.

The Dream Defenders are now one of the groups leading protests for social change across the state. Ashley Green of the Tampa Bay Area Dream Defenders said DeSantis’ history has made made it difficult to trust him now.

“To be called a hate group as we’re actively seeking peaceful nonviolent resolutions is particularly egregious,” Green said. “It was so rooted in hatred.”

Some members of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus said DeSantis, in recent private conversations, has sought guidance on how to ensure protests remained peaceful, a gesture they saw as a sign that the Republican leader is willing to listen.

“He’s concerned about a solution," said Sen. Daryl Rouson, who represents both Tampa and St. Petersburg. “He’s concerned about hearing those who feel like they have not been heard.”

DeSantis, a former prosecutor in the Navy, has not often confronted these topics.

His first foray in elective politics came in the aftermath of the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin by the armed George Zimmerman. Though the congressional district DeSantis sought to represent was a 20-minute drive from the scene where Martin was fatally shot, the unrest that gripped the state barely made a blip in his race.

DeSantis’ tenure in Congress spanned a tumultuous time in race relations that preceded the civil unrest of the past three weeks. The killings of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Eric Garner in New York and Freddie Gray in Baltimore all took place while DeSantis served in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Tampa Bay Times reviewed hundreds of statements DeSantis’ congressional office released during his seven years in office. He did not comment on any of those incidents or similar ones in those news releases.

Former Orange County Commissioner Rod Love, who served on a DeSantis public safety transition team, said even if this issue hasn’t been a focal point for DeSantis before, he he has seen a willingness in the Republican leader to take on tough problems when they become front and center.

“He has the ability to set the tone for the rest of the country, not just the state,” said Love, a radio show host in Orlando and a former Deputy Secretary for juvenile justice under two Republican governors. “What people want to see, and I do believe he can deliver, is something that people can measure."